ASHEVILLE — Lawmakers have taken a step in expanding crime lab operations in Western North Carolina, and a report from the Department of Justice details a multimillion-dollar proposal for a new facility that would appease law enforcement and judicial officials in the region.
State Sen. Tom Apodaca introduced a bill Wednesday that would supply millions of dollars to build and staff a regional crime lab in the mountains. Two days later, Joseph R. John, director of the state crime lab, released a report outlining the options for a new lab, including the construction of a $16.7 million facility in Edneyville.
“The main thing I want to do is get us a lab up and going in Western North Carolina,” Apodaca said. “It is a top priority.”
Apodaca said it has not been determined exactly how much funding will be available for the crime lab project because of budget constraints, so it may not be as expansive as John outlined in the report.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to pull it off because we’re still recovering,” he said. “But we’re definitely going to get something done up here so we don’t have to wait so long with these cases.”
The report comes after months of frustration regarding a backlog at the state crime lab that has delayed WNC court cases, many of them involving impaired drivers. There aren’t enough crime lab analysts to deal with the growing number of toxicology and DNA requests and fulfill obligations to testify in court about those test results.
In a report sent to state House and Senate committees Friday, John detailed the cost of building a new facility in Edneyville versus the cost of leasing or renting a facility.
A new, 36,050-square-foot facility would cost $16.7 million to build on the campus of the Western Justice Academy in Edneyville, according to the report. The proposed plan for the new facility also includes the addition of 28 staff positions.
The report states the building would be ready for business in the summer or early fall of 2015, assuming adoption of the proposal for the biennial state budget this summer.
The options for leasing a facility would not be limited to the academy site in Edneyville and would explore options in the Asheville area. Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan said he is in favor of having a lab at the site of the academy to help speed up prosecution of driving while impaired cases.
Prosecutors have said lab delays, partially caused by an increase in responsibility for the lab analysts, are a major problem when it comes to prosecuting DWI cases.
“I think most people feel the efficient and effective ability to administer justice is high on everybody’s priority,” Duncan said.
The report says building a new facility would cost more upfront, but the state wouldn’t have to pay lease charges, which would provide savings in the long run. The estimated cost for leasing a facility that is 36,050 square feet would be about $972,000 a year, based on a rate of $27 per square foot when the state leased space for a lab in 2008.
“Over five years, the state would spend $14.29 million less by using leased facility approach,” the report states. “However, with the $972,000 annual lease charge, the capital construction approach the state would provide a savings payback period of 17.2 years.”
The state worked with architects, engineers and input from current lab scientists to develop plans for the facility.
The current lab in Buncombe County, which uses 8,800 square feet and supports 17 forensic scientists, is in a leased building at a location not suitable for expansion, according to the report. It is used for drug chemistry, latent evidence and firearm and toolmark analysis, but not drug toxicology and DNA services.
In North Carolina, more than 20,000 law enforcement officers submit evidence to the lab, according to the report. In 2011, submissions exceeded 42,000.
Toxicology requests, primarily in drunken driving cases, to analyze blood for the presence of alcohol and drugs soared to nearly 10,000 between fiscal years 2009-10 and 2011-12. That total increased 34 percent since fiscal year 2008-09, although only 12 toxicology scientist positions are funded.
About 38 percent of toxicology submissions originate in counties served by the current WNC lab, but most must be either transmitted to Greensboro or Raleigh because the lab here has neither the specific personnel nor the scientific equipment for toxicological analysis.
It takes a crime lab analyst roughly two hours to run a blood test when testing for alcohol only, John said. Testing for alcohol and drugs doubles the time it takes to run the test.
A 2009 court ruling that requires lab analysts to testify in person if a defense attorney objects to the admission of the test results alone has further complicated matters. Toxicology court hours for crime lab analysts grew from 692 hours in 2009 to 2,368 in 2010, according to state officials.
“The perfect storm of insufficient staffing, escalating case submissions, and the judicial requirement that lab scientists personally appear in every court proceeding, has taxed the lab’s current capacity to the limit,” John said in the report. “Caseload inventories have risen substantially, and turnaround and delivery times have expanded to unacceptable levels.”
Haywood County District Attorney Michael Bonfoey said the bill introduced Wednesday is a positive step. He said having expert examiners closer would help expedite the judicial process.
“It’s good to see there is some momentum and movement in that direction,” he said. “Hopefully the legislators will follow through and it will get passed.”
Written by Romando Dixson